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Teaching a class on midrash!

Today I get a rare opportunity: to guest-lecture to a college classroom! The class is on Good and Evil; the students will have just read Genesis 2 and Genesis 3, with which they are probably already pretty familiar. (Hint: Adam, Eve, a garden, and a certain snake.) But what may be less familiar to them are the accompanying essays and other texts they'll be reading alongside the Torah text, which I hope will give them a different way of looking at the story. The first piece they'll be reading is Midrash - The Key to Interpretation:

In Jewish tradition, the sacred texts of the Torah (the Hebrew Bible) have been kept adaptable to changing social circumstances through a form of story called midrash - stories invented to fill gaps or to explain apparent inconsistencies in the Torah. Midrash is actually a way to change the frame (context) of the stories in the Bible...

A famous tradition of midrash concerns an apparent inconsistency in Genesis: first, God created humans "male and female." Then, a few verses later, we are told the story of it not being good that Adam was alone and God creating a helpmate. How could this be? Could this holy story be flawed?

Not really, says the midrashic tradition. When God first created humans, God created Adam and the first woman, Lilith. Lilith refused a subordinate role, however, and fled the garden to bear the children of demons. Only then did Adam ask for a helpmate.

That story comes from the anonymous medieval text The Alphabet of Ben Sira:

When God created the first man Adam alone, God said, "It is not good for man to be alone." [So] God created a woman for him, from the earth like him, and called her Lilith. They [Adam and Lilith] promptly began to argue with each other: She said, "I will not lie below," and he said, "I will not lie below, but above, since you are fit for being below and I for being above." She said to him, "The two of us are equal, since we are both from the earth." And they would not listen to each other. Since Lilith saw [how it was], she uttered God’s ineffable name and flew away into the air. Adam stood in prayer before his Maker and said, "Master of the Universe, the woman you gave me fled from me!"

I've always found this story hilarious. (She refuses the "missionary position," speaks God's ineffable Name and flies away! Take that, patriarchy!) But the rabbis of earlier eras -- who were, of course, all men -- found it troubling. They depicted Lilith as a homeless outcast, jealous of Eve, who comes to the bedside of all newborns with the intention of killing them unless they are protected by amulets inscribed with angels' names.

But as the folks at the Jewish Women's Archive note:

In the last 40 years, there has been a transformation in how people think about midrash. More people now begin a conversation with the biblical text from their own responses and experiences, rather than looking to the rabbis to tell them what the text means. Thus, not only rabbis from past centuries, but Jews today from diverse backgrounds and experiences feel empowered to write midrashim, expressing new perspectives on our texts. The women’s movement and Jewish feminists were central to this transformation.

In the 1970s, women started to notice that many traditional texts of Judaism and all rabbinic responsa were written by men (as far as we know). Women searched for glimpses of female viewpoints but they were difficult to find. They realized that the experiences of half of the Jewish population are absent from the official record of the Jewish people. To remedy this imbalance, women began to create their own midrashim, retelling biblical stories from the perspectives of female characters. In 1972, one such woman -- feminist theologian Judith Plaskow -- wrote "The Coming of Lilith." Plaskow was interested in figuring out ways to include women’s perspectives and experiences in Judaism and Jewish texts.

You can download "The Coming of Lilith" from the Jewish Women's Archive here. It begins:

In the beginning, the Lord God formed Adam and Lilith from the dust of the ground and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life. Created from the same source, both having been formed from the ground, they were equal in all ways. Adam, being a man, didn’t like this situation, and he looked for ways to change it. He said, “I’ll have my figs now, Lilith,” ordering her to wait on him, and he tried to leave to her the daily tasks of life in the garden. But Lilith wasn’t one to take any nonsense; she picked herself up, uttered God’s holy name, and flew away. “Well now, Lord,” complained Adam, “that uppity woman you sent me has gone and deserted me.” The Lord, inclined to be sympathetic, sent his messengers after Lilith, telling her to shape up and return to Adam or face dire punishment. She, however, preferring anything to living with Adam, decided to stay where she was. And so God, after more careful consideration this time, caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam and out of one of his ribs created for him a second companion, Eve.

For a time, Eve and Adam had a good thing going. Adam was happy now, and Eve, though she occasionally sensed capacities within herself that remained undeveloped, was basically satisfied with the role of Adam’s wife and helper. The only thing that really disturbed her was the excluding closeness of the relationship between Adam and God. Adam and God just seemed to have more in common, both being men, and Adam came to identify with God more and more. After a while, that made God a bit uncomfortable too, and he started going over in his mind whether he may not have made a mistake letting Adam talk him into banishing Lilith and creating Eve, seeing the power that gave Adam.

Meanwhile Lilith, all alone, attempted from time to time to rejoin the human community in the garden. After her first fruitless attempt to breach its walls, Adam worked hard to build them stronger, even getting Eve to help him. He told her fearsome stories of the demon Lilith who threatens women in childbirth and steals children from their cradles in the middle of the night. The second time Lilith came, she stormed the garden’s main gate, and a great battle ensued between her and Adam in which she was finally defeated. This time, however, before Lilith got away, Eve got a glimpse of her and saw she was a woman like herself...

In the end, Lilith and Eve meet and become friends. They are sisters. They have much in common. And when they return to the Garden together, the whole story -- the whole enterprise of human history! -- is going to change. I love the way the classical Lilith story changes the frame of the Torah text -- and then, the way that Plaskow's contemporary retelling of the Lilith story changes the frame again.

Another excellent commentary on the Genesis story is Rabbi Lori Forman's "The Untold Story of Eve," which can be found in The Women's Torah Commentary, ed. Rabbi Elyse Goldstein. Forman notes:

Many of our common images of Eve are negative ones. Was Eve created from Adam's rib? Was Eve an empty-headed woman easily lured by the snake into biting the forbidden fruit? Most often, Eve is portrayed as a temptress and seductress. Most of us have earned that Eve seduced Adam into eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. These ugly views of Eve have paved the way for all Western religious traditions to denigrate women. Christianity, perhaps, is most explicit in using these narratives to characterize women as evil and sinful...

Forman looks at the verse in Genesis 2 which is usually understood to mean that Eve was created from Adam's rib, and writes:

The talmudic rabbis were...bothered by an overly literal reading of this verse in chapter 2. Carefully reading verses 20 and 21, they suggest that the word tzelah, most commonly translated as "rib," derives from the Hebrew word meaning "side." Thus, they declare that Eve was not created from Adam's rib. Rather, Adam was a bisexual, double-faced being -- neither male nor female. During the deep sleep that fell upon this first human, its male and female sides were separated, creating man and woman as we know them today.

Here's that midrash as it appears in Bereshit Rabbah, a classical compilation of midrash on Genesis:

Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazar said: When the Holy One created Adam, He created him hermaphrodite [bisexual], as is said, "Male and female created He them . . . and called their name Adam."(Bereishit 5:2)

Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman said: When the Holy One created Adam, He made him with two fronts; then He sawed him in half and thus gave him two backs, a back for one part and a back for the other part.

Someone objected: But does not Scripture say, "And He took one of his ribs (mi-tzalotav)" (Bereishit 2:21)?

Rabbi Samuel replied: Mi-tzalotav may also mean "his sides," as in the verse "And for the second side (tzela) of the mishkan [Tabernacle]..." (Shemot 26:20)

I would quibble with the classical rabbis' conflation of "bisexual" and "hermaphrodite" (and I'm not wild about the term "hermaphrodite" in the first place -- it's my understanding that "intersex" is a more acceptable term), but it's still a pretty wild act of interpretive gymnastics. Anyway, Back to Rabbi Forman's contemporary piece. Maybe my favorite part of her essay is the part where Forman notes that the common mental image of Eve as a sedctress is arguably a complete misreading of the text:

It is commonly held that Eve was seduced by the snake...Yet the snake's seduction also involves undermining God's original warning: Not only will eating fruit from this particular tree not cause death, but rather, benefits will result from doing so. Upon hearing the snake's contradictory words, Eve looks a the fruit and comes to some very startling conclusions of her own...Only after such contemplation does Eve actively reach for the fruit. It is not an impulsive act. This is not a passive scene. Eve, full of curiosity reaches out for the gifts of life: food, beauty, and wisdom.

Many of us may harbor images in our heads of Eve running to find Adam to share with him this delicious fruit. Actually, the Torah explicitly tells us that Adam was there next to her during this entire scene...and not once does he speak up!

A close reading of Genesis shows that Eve doesn't "seduce" Adam into anything. That whole notion of women as wily temptresses who draw men to their downfall -- arguably in no small part a cultural product of the Christian doctrine of original sin which stems from the most common Christian interpretation of this Biblical story -- is nowhere in the text at all.

So what does this story from Genesis have to teach us about good and evil? I'm hoping that by the end of the class, the students will agree that whatever they originally thought it meant is only one possible interpretation, and that the story is far richer and more interesting than they had known.